Before attempting to explain what Conor McPherson’s The Birds is, running now at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West, best make it clear what it isn’t. It is not a stage adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock film. It’s not set in Bodega Bay, there is no schoolhouse full of screaming children, and no one is trapped in a phone booth by marauding sea gulls. Nor is it a straightforward adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s original 1952 novella. It’s not set in post WWII England. It’s not about a war veteran working on a farm with his family. It’s not a metaphor for the aerial bombardment endured by England during the Second World War. The only thing the three have in common is the premise of nature turning on man in the form of indiscriminate and deadly attacks of the avian variety. McPherson takes that premise and wraps a human story around it with elements whose genesis may be found in… well, we’ll get to that.
It begins with a man and a woman, Nat (Nick Sholley) and Diane (Liz Jahren), taking refuge from the birds in an abandoned New England Farm House. Nat is in the throes of some illness, so Diane nurses Nat back to health. Together they map out a plan for survival. Not knowing if there’s a world to return to, they begin to settle into sort of a domestic arrangement when the balance of that arrangement is set askew by the arrival of Julia (Rae Quintana) and a visit from a “neighbor” (Anthony Abaté). Soon, the birds may become the least of their problems when it comes to their survival.
The Birds is a challenging mixture of horror, thriller and character study. It’s an oddly constructed piece with some scenes lasting only seconds and others seeming to jump in time past significant action. The play’s structure works against it as a sense of dread or danger was often dissipated by the requirement of having the cast rearrange the set or move prop pieces. Still, it does manage to have a couple of nice jolts in it.
What The Birds has going for it is an excellent cast and MSW’s naturally claustrophobic setting. Nick Sholley (last seen at MSW in A Steady Rain) brings another seriously flawed, slightly unhinged character to vivid life. Liz Jahren is very good in the role of Diane, effectively playing a character who starts out as bedrock of sense and purpose but who eventually crumbles under the pressure, both real and imagined. Rae Quintana’s Julia is a character of many shades and quite possibly shady. Anthony Abaté has the least amount of stage time, but that time is memorable.
Director Elizabeth Craven doubles as Set Designer and, as I have come to expect from Main Stage West, she packs a lot of set into its relatively small space. While the interior of the house takes up the complete stage, a sense of depth and the outside world is achieved through lighting and especially by Doug Faxon’s sound design. Nary a feather is seen on stage, but the birds – aurally – are omnipresent.
McPherson’s plays (Shining City, The Seafarer) often have a supernatural or spiritual component to them. One might assume that the use of du Maurier’s original concept of the destruction of the human race by birds would fit that bill but, as I alluded to in the opening paragraph, I think it actually goes a bit deeper.
At its core, what McPherson presents in his adaptation is the story of a man and woman, possibly the only humans on earth. Their (relatively) idyllic existence is challenged by temptation in the form of Julia. The seeds of mistrust are sown by the appearance of a Mephistophelian neighbor. That mistrust leads to actions that result in their leaving (or self-banishment from) the comfort and safety of their surroundings.
Could it be that Conor McPherson’s The Birds is a very twisted retelling of the Book of Genesis and Adam and Eve?
The Birds runs through April 23rd. Visit mainstagewest.com.